Israelis and Palestinians, each in their own way, have always maintained an acute sensitivity to the perceptions of the outside world. Israel was established through external support and depended heavily for its survival on outside economic, diplomatic and military assistance. Palestinians, for their part, became sensitized to world opinion in the mid-seventies when it became apparent that, as the weaker party, they must solicit strength and backing from those outside. It was for that reason that Palestinians changed their strategic thinking and dropped their demand for the fulfillment of their rights to regain historic Palestine, instead basing their position on that supported by international law. The argument for doing so, in fact, was that Palestinians would then gain support from the international community that was responsible for implementing those same resolutions.
The climax of both parties’ adherence and sensitivity to world opinion was the establishment of the peace process. Palestinians were not at all happy with the conditions placed on their participation, but were unable to fend off international pressure. By the same token, the reluctant Israeli government led by right wing prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was pressed to come to the table. When that peace process then collapsed, both sides found themselves disappointed by the subsequent turn in international support.
There is no doubt, however, that Palestinians have felt that disappointment more acutely. Perhaps the most significant component in the misunderstanding and miscommunication of the Palestinian position were the Palestinian suicide bombings. These bombings were not only justifiably condemned by the world, but they were decontextualized and viewed by the international community as an inexplicable new kind of terrorism, a view that then resulted in a demonization of the Palestinian cause. This sentiment became even more pronounced after the events of September 11.
In turn, those Palestinians who supported the bombings were not so much indifferent to international public opinion, as unable to understand its essence. They believed that the world would see the Israeli state terrorism and atrocities against Palestinians civilians from the start of the Intifada (with at first very few casualties on the other side) and at least be able to understand Palestinian rage at their great human loss and complete helplessness to do anything about it.
Palestinians also expected the world to be able to view the violence by both sides within the context of the ongoing belligerent Israeli military occupation, which is in direct contravention of international law.
Finally, Palestinians expected those with some knowledge of the region to understand its complexities–i.e., that Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, violence that Hamas began and insisted on continuing, was not only intended to harm Israelis, but also to harm the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian peace camp (one notes that with the lack of world understanding and intervention, the centrist Fateh-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades is now trying to outdo Hamas in order to keep itself at the forefront of the Palestinian political spectrum).
These “misunderstandings” have been aggravated to the point that Palestinians are now at a total loss as to why the world, in particular the United States, is willing to allow the current conditions to continue. The Israeli army massacre in Jenin was carried out with official Israeli disrespect for the requirements of international law, not only regarding Palestinians, but towards international humanitarian bodies including the Red Cross. The world’s lack of sensitivity for the level of Israeli atrocities, and its willingness to tolerate what most international legal bodies have characterized as “unnecessary killing” or “war crimes” has been extremely disappointing from the Palestinian point of view. .
Palestinians were not surprised, on the other hand, by the immovability of the Israeli public in the face of the military crimes. Palestinians are used to the Israeli defense mechanism of self- isolation in the face of world criticism. Suddenly, when verbal criticisms are made against the Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians and the unneeded destruction of civilian structures like the ministries of education, health and bureau of statistics, Israelis convince themselves that the criticisms are not real, but the manifestations of anti-Semitism. (That is not in any way meant to “explain” or justify unconscionable racist attacks on Jews or Jewish institutions around the world.)
This defense mechanism prevents the Israeli people from seriously examining its own policies and being affected by negative changes in international public opinion against Israel. These sensitivities in Israelis are something that the Palestinian people are acutely aware of themselves.
To make matters worse, the Israeli media seems to have lost its professionalism as the state puts on hold one integral component of democracy–the right to know. The Israeli people simply have no idea what their army is doing in the Palestinian territories. The vast majority of Israelis believe that the army is attacking “terrorist bases” in the Palestinian areas and that the resulting casualties have been to “terrorists” or those who support them. They don’t know and they don’t want to know that the main target of this Israeli operation was the Palestinian Authority. The numbers show that some two-thirds of Palestinian casualties were in fact incurred by civilians.
And even though Israel now faces criticism from varying quarters, the strong states in the world are not reflecting that criticism in their diplomacy. Each has its own interests to pursue and remains immobilized by historic sensitivities, first for the deep wound caused by European atrocities against the Jewish people in Europe especially during World War II, as well as towards the role that Israel played in favor of regional Western interests during the Cold War. These factors have created a gap between the very values professed by these states and their commitment to international law, on the one hand, and the tendency to handle Israel as if it is a country somehow above the law, on the other.
Despite its failings to date, international opinion continues to maintain great leverage over both Palestinians and Israelis. As has succeeded in the past, the United Nations Security Council or governments mediating on behalf of international institutions should continue to use the leverage available to them to enforce a solution to this conflict in a way supported by international law.
Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.